AUSTIN, Texas — President Obama will be at several private fundraising events in Austin and San Antonio on Tuesday, but will not be taking time out of his busy schedule to pay your utility bills.
A new scam suggests the federal government will help pay your electric bill to help curb the high utility costs many Americans are incurring this time of year. But instead of financial relief, victims could be left with a stolen identity and an empty wallet.
So far the scam has been reported in various forms across the country. Scammers show up at homes, call, text or even contact their victims through social media convincing them that a new federal assistance program is available that will pay up to $1,000 on their utility or credit card bills. In some instances victims are given phony bank account and routing numbers to use when paying their bills online, but only after “registering” their Social Security numbers and other personal information. Some victims have been instructed to enter the red digit number from the back of their Social Security card as their account number. In any event, consumers are led to believe that their bills have been paid when entering the information, when in fact they have not.
There is no federal assistance program to pay household bills. But that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from falling for this scam across the country including Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Utah, California, and throughout New England.
In some cases, once victims receive confirmation of their payment, they share their success with family and friends who in turn also fall for the scam. It can take the companies receiving the “payments” a day or two to recognize bogus account numbers were being used.
Consumers receiving the fake account numbers secondhand often don’t expose themselves to identity theft because they aren’t asked by scam artists for their personal information. However, they do help spread the scam when they believe it was successful for them. Plus victims don’t realize their bill remains unpaid which exposes them to late fees, interest, or even service interruption.
Tips to avoid falling for a scam:
- Beware of giving personal information over the phone. Never provide your social security number, credit card number or banking information to anyone requesting it over the phone or at your home unless you initiated the contact and feel confident with whom you are speaking.
- Use your own personal information. Always pay your bills with your own personal information; never pay your bills with information that is not your own.
- Do your research. If you receive a call claiming to be your utility company and feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill.
- Beware of the door-to-door sales approach. Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, natural gas pipes or appliances unless you have scheduled an appointment or have reported a utility problem. Also, ask utility employees for proper identification.
- Be proactive. If you have already provided information to someone claiming to offer this service, contact your bank immediately. Also contact the three national credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – and have a notation made on your account so it doesn’t impact your credit rating.
- Inform others. Share this information with friends and family so they do not become victims. Elderly victims are common in this type of scam, but anyone who pays a utility bill is a potential victim.